Vatican, rescue groups condemn migrant deaths in Mediterranean


The Saturday front page headline of Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reads, “Abandoned and buried at sea”, after more than a hundred migrants died in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Pope Francis built on the newspaper’s denunciation of what he called a “moment of shame” and told the public in St. Peter’s Square to “pray for those who can help but who prefer to look the other way. Let’s pray for them in silence”.

The pope lamented the latest deaths of 130 migrants who put to sea in traffickers’ unseaworthy boats amid bad weather.

Rescue groups are also decrying the latest deaths, saying that central Mediterranean nations have chosen not to dispatch vessels to save them.

Aid group Alarm Phone said in a tweet that despite a spotter plane locating an overcrowded ship in the sea north of Libya on Wednesday and pleas for help from the occupants, “only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea.”

By the time a charity rescue ship reached the site on Thursday evening, the boat had capsized and all the estimated 130 occupants are believed to have drowned.

The existence of the dangerously overcrowded boat was first signalled in a call to the aid group Alarm Phone on Wednesday.

Alarm Phone said it was in contact with the dinghy over a period of 10 hours on Wednesday. It said it “repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation on board to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public.”

The European Union border protection agency Frontex told The AP in an interview that it had alerted Italian, Maltese and Libyan authorities after one of its patrol planes spotted the dinghy.

“Despite Frontex spotting the distressed boat from the sky, only non-state actors actively searched for the boat in distress at sea,” Alarm Phone said in a tweeted statement.

Ocean Viking, a rescue ship operated by the charity group SOS Mediterranee, together with MY ROSE, one of three merchant vessels which complied with requests from Italy and Libya to lend assistance, reached the site on Thursday and found several bodies, one of them hunched over a life preserver, but no survivors.

Frontex spokesman Krzysztof Borowski blamed the incident on bad weather.

“Unfortunately, the deadly weather that occurred over the last few days in that area made it almost impossible to do any type of rescue mission,” he said in a Zoom interview on Saturday from Warsaw, Poland, where the EU agency is based.

The Libyan coast guard has said bad weather, combined with the need to rescue other migrants off the Libyan coast, prevented involvement in the efforts to help the dinghy.

The ship Ubari, supplied by Italy to Libya’s coast guard in 2018, had rescued 104 migrants and recovered two bodies from a traffickers’ boat off the country’s coast on Thursday, according to Italian news reports.

Italy trained and equipped the Libyan coast guard but has come under fire from aid groups, which say the fleet in the violence-wracked north African nation is not up to the task.

Additionally, when the Libyan coast guard does rescue migrants from flimsy dinghies or fishing boats, they are brought back to inhumane conditions in detention centres, UN refugee agencies and human rights groups have lamented.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi sparked criticism when, during a recent visit to Libya, he praised the work of the Libyan coast guard.

On Saturday, another boat was reported to be in distress, with 42 migrants aboard, but it couldn’t be located, SOS Mediterranee’s Italy director general, Valeria Taurino, told Italian Rai state TV.

Lamenting the loss of lives, Taurino said the charity calls on Europe “to take up its responsibilities” and not to block NGO rescue boats from operating.

Italy has repeatedly kept charity rescue ships in port for weeks for administrative inspections after the vessels brought rescued migrants to Italian shores. (Source: CNA)